With the quick collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Bush-administration critics hope to fight political battles on domestic policy’s friendlier terrain. As Democrats and their allies search for ways to dampen Bush’s approval ratings as a result, expect renewed attention to environmental policy. While many think the environment is a marginal issue, analysts across the political spectrum have identified it as one of Bush’s larger vulnerabilities. Some environmentalists hope it will be President Bush’s Achilles’ heel.
Beginning today — Earth Day — Democratic politicians and their allies in environmental-activist groups will step up their campaign to portray the George W. Bush as an “anti-environmental” president. This morning leaders from a dozen green outfits will hold a press conference “to alert the American people to the Bush administration’s continuing assault on virtually every regulation that protects America’s air, water, public lands and public health.” Echoes from the Democratic presidential hopefuls will not be far behind. At the same time, the Earth Day Network
is launching a national voter-registration drive, shifting its focus from April 22 to November 2004.
Some Democratic politicians are already in the act. In a major environmental address earlier this year, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry claimed the Bush-administration’s policies are “balanced” only if one means “balanced like the books at Enron or WorldCom.” The nation would be better off were the administration simply doing nothing instead of pursuing environmental reforms, charged nominally independent Senator James Jeffords, who lost the chairmanship of the Senate Environmental Committee after the 2002 elections. “The state of our union is getting weaker and weaker, dirtier and dirtier,” proclaimed New York Senator Hillary Clinton in January. (Senator Clinton is correct that water quality declined in the last two years of her husband’s administration, but it would be hard to blame that one on President Bush.)
Environmental activists trumpet the same themes. “The Bush administration is allowing the polluting companies to benefit at the expense of public health and safety,” commented Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope in an Earth Day release. Bush’s appointees have unleashed “a torrent of anti-environmental rollbacks,” claims National Environment Trust president Phillip Clapp. One environmental-law professor has even suggested that “in the long run” the Bush administration will be better know for “the aggressive way it is pursuing alterations” to environmental law than the liberation of Iraq.
The high point of environmental hysteria was reached by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a recent report on the Bush team’s environmental record. Matching the apocalyptic rhetoric for which environmental activists are oft derided, NRDC’s study concluded that “America’s environmental laws face a fundamental threat more sweeping and dangerous than any since the dawn of the modern environmental movement in 1970.” Even though the Bush administration is not proposing any major revisions to any major environmental statutes, NRDC claims Bush and the Republican Congress pose the most “far-reaching and destructive” environmental threat of all time. Even though most quantitative measures of environmental quality are improving, the environment is “under siege.”
Contrary to such hysterical claims, the Bush administration has been extremely modest — perhaps too modest — in its efforts to reform federal environmental law. Many of the so-called “assaults” on environmental protection are little more than modest changes in existing policy; others are nothing more than refusals to implement a policy changes proposed by President Clinton. For instance, whereas the Clinton administration sought to require that new air conditioners be 30 percent more energy efficient than existing models, the current administration is under fire because it adopted a rule requiring that new models are “only” 20 percent more efficient instead. At the same time, the Bush administration has tightened numerous environmental regulations from drinking-water standards to diesel engine emissions.
The Bush administration reversed a Clinton proposal to ban the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park in return for the adoption of more stringent controls on snowmobile exhaust. Some might consider such a result as a “win-win” scenario — wintertime visitors still get snowmobile access and the park gets greater protection from pollution. Yet some environmental activists act as if this policy is an unconscionable environmental affront. Whatever one thinks about the merits of such policy decisions, they hardly amount to a massive environmental rollback.
One of the most controversial environmental-policy initiatives of the Bush administration is a series of changes to “New Source Review” (NSR) regulations under the Clean Air Act. These regulations require utilities and industrial facilities to install costly pollution control equipment on major new sources of air emissions, including modifications to existing facilities. The Bush team’s proposed policy changes are aimed at allowing routine maintenance and repair at older industrial facilities — including steps to maintain or improve efficiency at existing plants — have environmental groups up in arms.
Environmental critics ignore the fact that the existing rules can discourage efficiency improvements and repairs that are environmentally beneficial. Under current standards, even relatively minor revisions can require the imposition of costly controls. Thus, some facility operators are loath to engage in repairs or maintenance for fear of triggering the NSR requirements. This can prevent plant modifications that reduce energy use and industrial emissions. The problem is compounded because companies are not always sure what changes will trigger added regulatory burdens. To address these concerns the Bush EPA proposed relatively modest changes in the way plant repairs and upgrades are characterized so as to increase the predictability and reduce the burden of the rules.
Despite the howling protests from the usual suspects, the NSR reforms are hardly revolutionary. Indeed, the process that led to the current revisions was begun during the Clinton administration. The previous rules were so obsolete and burdensome that the National Governors Association passed a unanimous resolution calling for substantial changes, as did the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS), the national organization of state-level environmental agencies. Ironically, some states that have joined environmental groups in court to block the new NSR rules are already on record calling for such changes in principle.
Groups that usually celebrate the need for greater fuel efficiency are surprisingly mute about the impact existing NSR rules have on efficiency upgrades at industrial facilities. Green groups worried about global warming should applaud revisions that make it easier to improve plant efficiency, thereby reducing the amount of fuel — and carbon-dioxide emissions — per unit of output. Yet most environmental outfits are silent on this point. NSR reform’s potential environmental benefits were noted by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, but not by any activist groups. Indeed, some environmentalists are actually critical of the administration proposal because it will allow efficiency improvements without triggering costly red tape. That is hardly a “pro-environment” position.
The above is not meant to suggest that there is nothing wrong with the administration’s NSR reforms. The existing rules are highly complex and poorly thought out revisions could make a bad problem worse. As with so many questions of environmental policy, the devil is in the details. Yet environmental groups are not attacking the specifics of the Bush administration’s proposals so much as they are complaining that the Bush EPA dared to propose any changes at all. Moreover, while environmental activists warn that NSR revisions will mean dirtier air, the underlying air-quality standards remain in place, as do the legal requirements that “upwind” polluters not unduly harm “downwind” states. Again, whether or not one believes the specific Bush proposals are good policy, they cannot be fairly characterized as unconscionable assaults on Mother Earth that will, in the words of one critic, “profoundly change the purity of our air.”
The hysterical nature of some green attacks on the Bush administration would be amusing if they did not receive such a receptive hearing in the press. Most mainstream media outlets repeat green critiques as gospel. Even the king of prime-time talk, Bill O’Reilly, accepts much of the environmental-activist line. Yet as with the constant litany of ecological doom, so much that is said about the Bush administration is either exaggerated or simply not true. There are plenty of good reasons to criticize the Bush team’s approach to the environment — and I hope to write about them soon — but the alleged “assault” on America’s environmental laws is not one of them.
— Contributing Editor Jonathan H. Adler is assistant professor of law at Case Western Reserve University.